NAPALM DEATH’s career can be defined in terms of three major stylistic landmarks. There’s the blistering, debut "Scum"; the grindcore genre’s original, and perhaps, still to this day, best incarnation – though I would argue for PIG DESTROYER’s "Prowler In The Yard" (with "Scum" a close second) – 1990’s "Harmony Corruption"; which’s slower, more Death Metal approach would define their output for the remainder of the decade and, finally, 2001’s "Enemy Of The Music Business," which took the more riff and groove-driven approach of the nineties and reformed it into an altogether more ferocious, Grind-drenched form.
The final of these three landmark albums, like "Harmony Corruption" before it, has gone on to define the band’s sound over last decade, which has been perhaps the band’s most consistent and rewarding. And while I see no fault, quality wise, with the band’s twenty-first century output – of which I point to 2006’s "Smear Campaign" as the finest example - there does seem to be a lack of any individualist quality from each album to the next. Between "Order Of The Leach," "The Code Is Red…" and "Time Waits For No Slave" – all of which are outstanding albums in their own right - there’s nothing in particular to sway me to listen to one over the other. Hell, even their covers are exceedingly similar.
"Utilitarian" brings a degree of progression to the band’s sound that has been absent for over a decade, while still managing to sound exactly like everything else they’ve released post "Enemy Of The Music Business." Rather than launch straight into the mayhem, as per usual, the album kicks off with an effectively, moody build-up track in “Circumspect” before rolling into the album’s first “true” song, “Errors In the Signals”, which for all its familiarity, is driven by the sort of off-time riff usually more suited to Tech-Death bands like PSYCROPTIC. There’s plenty more eccentricities to be had; “The Wolf I Feed”, which harks back to 1994 masterpiece "Fear, Emptiness, Despair," is a quasi-Industrial piece containing clean, overproduced vocals that make a strong case for the involvement of one Burton C. Bell. Similarly, “Fall On Their Swords” and “Leper Colony” interrupt the offensive to interject a deep, droning, even gothic chorus amid Harris and Greenway’s throat shredding performances. There are also more subtle experiments, such as the odd structures and tonality of “Quarantined” and “Fall On Their Swords”. Likewise, the band also have more of a go at delivering some more restrained (by their standards) numbers; such as the thrashy “Protection Racket”, the downright groovy “Blank Look About Face” and the chugging end riff of “A Gag Reflex”, which closes the album.
Everything still sounds very much like NAPALM DEATH and it is in no way implied that "Utilitarian" is a complete departure from the progeny of "Enemy Of The Music Business." The band still have their foot to the floor for ninety-five per cent of the album, and drummer Danny Herrera has once again found a way to take his already inhuman drumming to faster, more unrelenting levels. However I wonder, given their penchant for releasing flagship albums at the beginning of each decade, will in 10 years time "Utilitarian" be looked back on as the precursor to a new more progressive, experimental era of NAPALM DEATH? Either way, it is another phenomenal example of why, over two decades later, NAPALM DEATH are still perhaps the premier band in the genre they spawned (again, PIG DESTROYER…), only this time with a little added dash of personality to go with it.
(Online March 1, 2012)